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OPINION

Setting the Record Straight on East Palestine

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is heartbreaking and tragic.

It has been a month since a Norfolk Southern train derailed and spilled 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the local community, affecting its 4,700 residents.

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The contrast in responses from the Biden administration and former President Donald Trump was startling. Biden was busy traveling to Ukraine to offer billions in foreign aid, and US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spent weeks avoiding traveling to East Palestine. Meanwhile, Trump immediately met with East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, paid for supplies and thousands of bottles of water to distribute, and took large teams of first responders to lunch at a local McDonald's.

The people of East Palestine were probably not impressed that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) had divided focus this past month with trips to Hollywood for fundraisers. Biden has yet to visit, but he pledged to "at some point," whatever that means.

Buttigieg finally caved to intense scrutiny and visited East Palestine, but only as part of a calculated political move to wrongfully blame the Trump administration's deregulation agenda for the derailment.

To deflect criticism, Buttigieg blamed the Trump administration for revoking a rule requiring Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes on all trains carrying high-flammable cargo. This change happened after a congressional watchdog report found that the Obama administration implemented the rule without proper cost-benefit analysis. 

Trump-hating pundits repeated Buttigieg's talking point. However, there's just one problem: Even if the ECP rule remained in place, the train in East Palestine didn't have enough high-flammable cargo cars to trigger the rule. Even The Washington Post's fact-checkers admitted, "none of the regulatory changes made during the Trump administration at this point can be cited as contributing to the accident."

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Buttigieg continued the partisan mud-slinging and aimed fire at Senators J.D. Vance (R-OH) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), noting that many Republicans have supported greater use of automated track safety inspections. Pilot programs from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) were conducted and showed that automated inspections discovered more problems than human visual inspectors could. The hope was to allow automation to free up human inspectors to examine signals and other parts of train travel that cannot be examined through automation. This would be especially helpful, as there has been a shortage of rail workers since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Unfortunately, the Biden administration put a stop to those pilot programs.

Buttigieg's focus on Republicans' regulatory changes is particularly obnoxious, as there's no sign that inspections of any kind (human or automated) for track defects would have helped East Palestine. The truth is, trains are historically many times safer than trucks when transporting hazardous material. Although trucks carry twice as much hazardous cargo as trucks, truck-related incidents caused 16 times more fatalities since 1975.  There have been zero fatalities caused by trains carrying hazardous cargo in the past decade. These statistics don't help the people of East Palestine, but neither does Buttigieg's cheap political theater.

Decision-makers have a challenging task ahead with managing an extensive cleanup, and exploring regulatory changes while avoiding bankrupting the railroad industry. But what is clear is that policy recommendations presented by Secretary Buttigieg last month – and co-signed by a few Republicans in legislation introduced this week – is not going to make trains any safer. Instead of helping the people of Ohio and communities that may be affected by future accidents, the Secretary’s so-called solutions are merely a repackaging of longtime progressive pet priorities for a special interest particularly close with this Administration: Organized labor. 

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My prayers go to the community of East Palestine, and all affected by this derailment deserve to be fairly compensated. It is time to put a stop to the Biden administration's nasty politics and political opportunism and take a stand with East Palestine.

Ken Blackwell is the former Mayor of Cincinnati, Treasurer, and Secretary of State of Ohio. He is an adviser to the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

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